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From Mrs America to The Great – how bad sex became a staple of feminist drama

Miriam Balanescu
·12-min read
Shortcomings: Timothee Chalamet and Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird (IFC Films)
Shortcomings: Timothee Chalamet and Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird (IFC Films)

Not far into Tony McNamara’s droll drama The Great, currently airing on Channel 4, Catherine’s servant asks nervously: “Are you ready for tonight? You do know what to expect?” She doesn’t. The newlywed Empress’s hopes of “souls mesh[ing]”, of falling “into a black sky filled with the shiniest of stars”, are dashed. Like the ducks the Emperor tells his servant about as he tosses Catherine down on the bed, any romantic notions she had about sex are quickly shot down.

Sex scenes like this are fast becoming a trend in feminist drama. Where once bad sex was almost never seen on-screen – with a few rare exceptions, like the 2001 French classic Amelie, in which Audrey Tautou’s eponymous heroine squeezes her lips together to stop herself laughing – the trope has only picked up speed in the years following #MeToo. Think of Christine and Kyle’s brief and awkward encounter in Lady Bird, which ended with a nosebleed and an angry exclamation: “Who the f*** is on top their first time?” Or Dominic Savage’s The Escape. Not to mention Booksmart, with its queasy bathroom sex scene.

It’s taken hold on television, too. In 2012, Lena Dunham’s Girls revolutionised onscreen sex. The uncouth millennial sister to Sex and the City, the series was praised for its “sexual realism”. The cringey, unromantic, even aggressive sex shone an uncomfortable light on the reality of women’s lived experiences; the series, which ended in 2017, was on the brink of the #MeToo movement.

Cut to 2020, and Michaela Coel’s trailblazing I May Destroy You not only provided a much-needed insight into the repercussions of sexual violence and trauma, but explored modern-day sex in all its iterations and grey areas, reaching towards a more gender-neutral culture in the process. In the final episode, genders are switched and the symbols for man and woman are merged on a toilet cubicle door. Mrs America, Normal People, The Queen’s Gambit and The Great are following suit in portraying a range of sexual experiences on screen.

For Dr Alison Peirse, writer of Women Make Horror, this fresh new honesty around sex is down to the writers’ rooms. “Disappointing, rubbish consensual sex is a fact of many women’s lives,” she says, adding that bad onscreen sex “comes out of more women having the opportunity to write and run their own shows and films, which means you’ll get a better diversity of human experience”.

Not so fabulous: Audrey Tautou as Amelie Poulin (2001)Canal+
Not so fabulous: Audrey Tautou as Amelie Poulin (2001)Canal+

Feminist Auteurs author Professor Geetha Ramanathan adds: “There [is] this real effort to present things in a broader casual context, to diminish sex itself, to demystify it as the most important thing in women’s lives or in people’s lives and to take the sting away from it.”

Ita O’Brien is a pioneer in sex on television, having worked on I May Destroy You, Sex Education, Normal People, Gentleman Jack and The Great as a movement director and intimacy coordinator. Of the shows she has worked on, she stresses, “an important part of the whole narrative … is open communication.” Not only that, but “the idea that actually a woman's sexual pleasure should be taken into consideration”.

One particular type of sex scene, the “disappointing missionary sex scene”, has gained traction over the past year. Dahvi Waller’s series Mrs America tells of how Phyllis Schlafly, the coiffed and polished Republican activist, successfully campaigned against the Equal Rights Amendment. Arriving home after a tough day of political liaising, Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) begins to undress for bed. Her husband stoops over her, kissing, hooking his arms around her. After making it clear that she is not in the mood, Schlafly resigns. The camera focuses on her face, drained and numb.

This disturbing moment seems to point to Phyllis and say: look, she is one of us. It indicates regret that Schlafly was not part of the feminist movement, and thus was not somehow protected from this situation by it. Critic Angelica Jade Bastien argues that Mrs America’s major shortcoming is “framing [Schlafly]”, who evidence suggests had ties with the Ku Klux Klan, “as a failed feminist rather than an architect of hate”.

A similar scene, featuring disappointing missionary sex, takes place in the BBC’s acclaimed adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. During the series, Marianne meets several men who are ready to belittle (and later abuse) her, in conversation and in the bedroom. After sleeping with her first boyfriend Gareth, she lies facing away from him, her arms flung across the pillows, her expression miserable.

O'Brien explains that, as an intimacy coordinator, there was a process of “re-experiencing that agreement and consent with someone completely new [actor Sebastian de Souza] and just for one scene.” In the scene, she says, “there is a sense of openness and autonomy, but a lack of connection... It's functional, and it's fine. And it's happening, but it's not - it's not the body-mind-spirit connection that is portrayed with Marianne and Connell.”

These scenes raise the question: what can feminism do to defend women when they consent but don’t enjoy sex? In 2018, The Female Eunuch writer Germaine Greer made the disturbing suggestion that “most rape is just bad sex” and called for a reduction in penalties. The implications of the scenes in Mrs America and The Escape, which are imbued with tragedy, are in danger of falling into this line of thinking – a line of thinking that could be detrimental to survivors of sexual violence.

And yet, scenes like those in Mrs America are doing something quite bold in questioning our definition of consent. Professor Ramanathan asserts that Mrs America, The Escape and even Girls are “suggesting that cultural and social coercion – even when self-imposed – means there’s not really full and free consent”.

Ramanathan makes a distinction between two different types of scenes, those in Lady Bird and Booksmart, and those in Girls, Mrs America and The Escape. “Consent is also based on ideas that you have – for instance, in Lady Bird, she’s on top of him, and she feels excited because she thinks it’s his first time too, and that they’re doing something together. I think that that was a really clever scene because it totally is the obverse of those sweet coming-of-age films that we’re so sick of.” In scenes like the one in Lady Bird, the man “does something other than what they had anticipated. Other than what they had thought were the boundaries.”

She adds, “is the ‘bad’ [of ‘bad consensual sex’] qualifying ‘sex’ or is it qualifying ‘consent’? And I think one important point to make is to say that the ‘bad’ qualifies both. There has to be a broader debate, a broader discussion across women of all ages, of all classes, of all races and all walks of life, over what constitutes consent.”

Scott Frank’s The Queen’s Gambit, based on Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel, offers a huge tonal shift from the melancholy of Normal People and Mrs America, but bad sex still abounds. When kickass chess prodigy Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) loses her virginity – nearly fully clothed – she asks her stoned classmate politely: “How much longer?” This cringey sex scene is followed by many more, focusing on male masters of chess with bad moves elsewhere. Like Marianne, Beth is assertive about her own desires, but men are rarely able to live up to them. Only towards the end of the season can Beth say, “So that’s what it’s supposed to feel like.”

For the Empress of Russia, soon to be Catherine the Great, sexual let-down is also more comedy than tragedy. The Great’s not-so-great sex scenes highlight the difference between Elle Fanning’s Empress, who championed Enlightenment ideas on culture, science and education, and Nicholas Hoult’s Emperor, who is a bit of a brute. McNamara explains that “he just believes men should act a certain way without thinking about it. There are more leaders like that than unlike that in the world.”

Elle Fanning as Catherine in The GreatHulu
Elle Fanning as Catherine in The GreatHulu

It is no coincidence that most of these shows are historic dramas. Consent is historically underdiscussed. In Saul Dibb’s The Duchess, Ralph Fiennes plays a slimy Duke, utterly uninterested in his wife’s sexual pleasure. Responsible for birthing a male heir, she is entrapped in matrimony where she has little power over her own body.

Striking the right tone for The Great’s sex scenes, described by executive producer Marion MacGowan as “perfunctory”, is certainly precarious. In the scene in which she loses her virginity, Catherine “might as well just be a piece of meat”, O'Brien says. The scene is “calling it what it is - you know, when a woman is just expected to produce the heir, you're a baby-making machine. You're a biological machine for that purpose. And that’s all your currency is.”

Intimacy coordinator Vanessa Coffey, who has worked on I Hate Suzie and The Winx Saga, notes that in Mrs America, Schlafly is “a woman who has a lot of power, generally speaking, outside the sphere of her own home, but we have to see where her lack of power is: in the kitchen, in the bedroom. In the home [her husband] takes priority … It would have been quite odd if they'd had really good sex actually. It would have been an awkward message.”

Many of these scenes are gut-wrenching portrayals of women for whom the idea of consent as we know it is non-existent. But with recent period drama’s contemporary feel, it is interesting that consensual bad sex has remained – as if to demonstrate that bad sex is a ubiquitous female experience.

Perhaps Kristen Roupenian’s viral 2017 story “Cat Person” is partly responsible. This fictional account, in which student Margot has an excruciating experience with an older man, cracked open the can of worms on people’s real-life dating stories. As the lack of consensus on this story attests, bad sex remains a grey area.

These dire dalliances act as a pertinent reminder that most sex on television is between men and women. According to Bloomberg, at least 10 per cent of prime-time scripted characters were LGBTQ+ in 2019, and yet non-straight sex scenes are rare. Beth’s queer romance in The Queen’s Gambit takes place off-screen, is fleeting and under-addressed. (In fact, Beth is punished for it; she loses an important match as a result.)

Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in The Queen’s GambitNetflix
Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in The Queen’s GambitNetflix

The heterosexual flop run the risk of reinforcing gender stereotypes. Age-old ideas about male virility as a marker of worth, women seeing sex as a slog and female victimhood, are potentially perpetuated. For centuries, men who are bad in bed have been the butt of jokes; rather than working in women’s favour, this has contributed to toxic masculinity, lad culture, and men boasting about their conquests.

And if only women are shown losing out, might that feed into misconceptions about men being more dominant in the bedroom, or women not being in control of their choices? While Mrs America and The Escape express that women deserve better than bad sex, their sex scenes have a slight sense of doom. The Queen’s Gambit, Ramanathan says, takes women from “an unassailable position of power” to being “isolated and distressed”.

Ramanathan notes that “if there’s one thing that all these sex scenes have in common, it’s that the women are not ‘in it’. I mean, they’re just absent from it. And I think that’s a pretty powerful message to send.”

On The Great’s sex scenes, MacGowan says: “You don’t want any of the women to be a victim in an obvious way. I think we’re always striving towards an ambiguity in characters … It’s very much the idea of making sure that the characters are present in their own choices and their own experiences.”

Dr Peirse notes that a lot of these films and shows are dominated by white female narratives. “Other groups still aren’t getting the opportunity to enter the arena to tell a complexity of story that isn’t just trauma. With my own students who are writing scripts, I’m always saying to them, ‘If you’ve got a character that’s LGBTQ+, you don’t have to give them a traumatic backstory of rape or abuse,’ but that’s how people have grown up seeing these stories.” She adds that “it can confuse industry gatekeepers if you don’t necessarily want to [portray traumatic narratives]”.

Diverse experiences: Sex Education is praised for showing ‘the full range of ways to have sex’Netflix
Diverse experiences: Sex Education is praised for showing ‘the full range of ways to have sex’Netflix

At a time when sex scenes are in flux, with the pandemic threatening intimacy coordination altogether, there is huge potential to transform portrayals of relationships. Plenty of shows and films making headway in depicting sex from a female perspective.

Peirse hopes that in future, a full range of sexual experiences will be shown on screen. “Sex Education seems to be a great one for showing the full range of ways to have sex, the worries and concerns, and good sex and bad sex. […] It’s not monolithic.”

O’Brien stands firm in saying that there should be more sex on TV rather than less. “There needs to be more intimate content, but more that really allows authenticity and positive depictions of sexual content as well. We shouldn't negate all the gamut of all the art of intimate expression, but it is allowing for more beautiful, consensual, positive, intimate content to be shown.”

Coffey expects that bad missionary sex will keep its grip on feminist drama – but she does add that, “because art has such a huge effect on people's lives”, seeing depictions of good communication during sex “might translate into somebody else's real sex life”. On that note, here’s to better onscreen sex in 2021.

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